It is far harder to write about a large eruption when it is at home. Many of my readers know that Guatemala City is my second home, and that I have my family and relatives there.
On top of that this hit’s home harder since my wife is one of the medical doctors fighting to save the lives of cooked children. I have seen images of children with their skin falling off being treated two at a time at hospitals, by doctors knowing that it will not end well.
A while ago there was a discussion in here where Albert tried to harmonize the Volcanic Explosivity Index with effusive eruptions like the one at Hawaii. This eruption shows exactly why I do not think it is a good idea to do that, because it moves the focus from lives to energy. And explosive eruptions and the VEI-scale is an attempt at judging how dangerous an eruption is to human lives. And, as we have seen today, even a VEI-3 eruption is far more dangerous to human lives than most effusive eruptions.
Fuego is an explosive strato-volcano that has been masquerading as a nice friendly tourist volcano. It has been doing that pretty much non-stop since 1974 when it had its last big eruption. But behind the beautiful strombolian fireworks has always been the potential for far worse.
In reality Fuego is deadly. It is a constant threat to the surrounding villages and towns, never far away from hurling deadly pyroclastic flows and lahars down it’s sides. It also has the potential for a catastrophic flank collapse like at Mount St Helens.
Earlier today I was asked if there have been signs, and if it wouldn’t have been possible to predict an upcoming eruption. The answer to that question is that we have known for the last few years that the strombolian eruptive phases has grown stronger, and we also know that there has been an increase in seismic signals.
What we could not know is that it would come right now. There are two reasons for that. One is that there is not enough equipment around the volcano to accurately forecast an upcoming eruption. Guatemala is just not rich enough to be able to afford such a network.
The other reason is that it is always very hard to forecast a volcano that is in a state of constant eruption, like Fuego.
In a couple of years, the area will be covered with the most extensive network on the planet, due to MantlePower (a geothermal venture). And they will share the data with the local government agencies. But, even with that network in place it is far from sure that the INSIVUMEH and CONRED could accurately forecast such an eruption, nor is it sure I could.
The initial blast sent an ash column 10 000 meters up into the air, that column collapsed and sent pyroclastic flows down the flanks of the volcano into several towns, among them Esquintla. After that came scaldingly hot lahars flowing.
After the initial eruption the column height has been around 5000 meters. At this moment this eruption rates as a VEI-3.
The firefighters have concentrated on finding living people and not done a search for the already dead. So, expect the mortality figures to climb.
A personal request
Guatemala is a poor country, if you have the ability, instead of sending thoughts and prayers, send money. Preferably via the Red Cross or Medicins sons Frontiers (Doctors without borders). There are a lot of children in need of reconstructive surgery so that they can have a life looking as normal as possible. I really meant the part of many of the children being cooked alive.